Five Christmas songs to improve your German language skills

Want to feel more festive while also improving your German? Writer Sarah Magill digs out some of the most beautiful (and fun) German-language Christmas carols.

A choir singing at the opening of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt in 2019.
A choir singing at the opening of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

German Christmas songs (Weihnachtslieder) have a very long tradition – with some of the songs sung today having their origins in the Middle Ages.

Like their English language counterparts, there are a few traditional German Christmas songs which can be heard everywhere during the festive season and which are sung every year, without fail on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve).

Here are five of the nation’s favourite Christmas songs, which will not only get you in a christmassy mood, but will also broaden your German vocabulary.

READ ALSO: Seven classic German Christmas traditions still taking place in the pandemic

1. Stille Nacht

You may be familiar with the English adaptation of this carol – “Silent Night” – but the original version comes from the city of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria. 

On December 24th, 1818, the assistant priest of the church of St. Nicola, Josef Mohr, presented the organist Franz Gruber with a poem called Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! (“Silent Night! Holy Night!”) and the two sang the song for the first time at the Christmas mass.

The Silent Night chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg. Photo:picture alliance / Eva-Maria Repolusk/SalzburgerLand Tourismus/dpa-tmn | Eva-Maria Repolusk

Written just after the Napoleonic wars, the text of Stille Nacht uses imagery of peace and calm, and has played an important role in times of war throughout its 200-year history: it was sung and performed in public during the First World War and also during the Second World War. 

German version

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft, einsam wacht

Nur das traute, hochheilige Paar.

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.

English version

Silent night, holy night!

All sleeps, lonely wakes

Only the happy, sacred couple.

Sweet boy with curly hair,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

The song has since been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects around the globe.

2. O Tannenbaum

Another German language original which has found its way into the English canon of Christmas carols, O Tannenbaum (“Oh Christmas Tree”) was originally a sad love song. The text was written by Potsdam scholar August Zarnack in 1820 to an already existing melody (“Long live the journeyman carpenter”) and is written from the perspective of a betrayed lover who is praising the constancy of the conifer tree:

German version

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter! 

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter!

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerszeit,
nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter!

English version

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!

You’re not just green in summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows,
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!

Four years later, Ernst Anschütz took the successful song and, retaining the first verse, turned it into a cheerful Christmas carol for children, which has grown in popularity ever since.

Sunlit conifers on the slopes of the Black Forest. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

3. O du fröhliche

O du fröhliche (“Oh you joyful”) is one of the best-known German-language Christmas carols. Its melody is based on the Sicilian Marian carol O sanctissima and the text of the first of three stanzas was written by the Weimar “orphan father” Johannes Daniel Falk.

Another text composed just after the Napoleonic wars, this song was written by Johannes Daniel Falk for the war orphans who were in the care of him and his wife Caroline. Around 1815, he wrote a song for these children: o du fröhliche and, to this day, many people all over the world sing it, especially on Christmas Eve. 

German version

O du fröhliche, o du selige,

Gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!

Welt ging verloren,

Christ ist geboren:

Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!

English version

O merry, O blessed, 

Merry Christmas time!

The world was lost,

Christ is born:

Rejoice, rejoice, O Christendom!

READ ALSO: Ten ways to celebrate Christmas like a German

4. Leise rieselt der Schnee

The Christmas song Leise rieselt der Schnee (“Quietly trickles the snow”) is traditionally sung throughout Advent in Germany. It was written and composed by the Protestant pastor Eduard Ebel in 1895 and is now one of the nation’s most popular Christmas songs.

The text is is packed with beautiful imagery of a snowy landscape:

German version

Leise rieselt der Schnee
Still und starr ruht der See
Weihnachtlich glänzet der Wald
Freue Dich, Christkind kommt bald

English version

Quietly trickles the snow

Still and rigid rests the lake

Christmas shines in the forest

Rejoice, Christ Child is coming soon

5. In der Weihnachtbäckerei

A much more modern Christmas song, in der Weihnachtsbäckerei (“in the Christmas bakery”) describes what’s going on behind the scenes in preparation of German sweet seasonal treats. 

It’s a great song for practising your culinary skills, as it reads like a recipe for making Plätzchen (traditional German Christmas cookies). 

A child cuts out cookies in Hamburg, 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

The song’s composer and writer,  Rolf Zuckowski, made up the song in 1986 while driving home to his family who were making Christmas cookies. When he arrived home, the song was ready and his three-year-old son immediately sang the new song on his way to bed.

German version

In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
Gibt es manche Leckerei
Zwischen Mehl und Milch
Macht so mancher Knilch
Eine riesengroße Kleckerei
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei 

Brauchen wir nicht Schokolade
Zucker, Nüsse und Succade
Und ein bisschen Zimt?
Das stimmt

Butter, Mehl und Milch verrühren
Zwischendurch einmal probieren
Und dann kommt das Ei (pass auf)

English version

In the Christmas bakery

There are many treats

Between flour and milk

Many a lout makes

A huge mess

In the Christmas bakery

In the Christmas bakery

Don’t we need chocolate

Sugar, nuts and succade

And a little bit of cinnamon?

That’s right

Mix butter, flour and milk

Taste in between

And then comes the egg (watch out)

Too late!

READ ALSO: German Advent word of the day: Die Plätzchen

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8 Austrian TV series to watch to improve your (Austrian) German

To celebrate Netflix's release of the trailer for its long-awaited German-language biopic on Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Sisi, we've rounded up some other very watchable Austrian TV series that showcase Austrian dialects.

8 Austrian TV series to watch to improve your (Austrian) German

But first, The Empress. This period drama is rumoured to be Austria’s answer to UK hit The Crown.

It tells the story of the impossibly glamorous Austrian-Hungarian empress – better known as Sisi – whose life entranced the public.

It’s due out on September 29, but if you can’t wait that long, try these other Austrian TV series on for size and get a feel for Austria’s different dialects – and its stunning scenery.

We’ve put together a real mixed bag, with some cult golden oldies, as well as some new hits doing the rounds.

Vier Frauen und ein Todesfall (Four Women and a Fatality)
This Austrian crime-comedy series centres on four friends living in an idyllic mountain village. But it’s not quite so idyllic as it seems because people keep on dying. And the four titular heroines – and self-styled hobby detectives – always suspect a crime and are immediately on the scene to solve it with their unorthodox methods.

Look out for the classic line that accompanies every suspicious death: “I glaub’ ned, dass des a Unfoi woar!” (I don’t think that that was an accident). Humour runs through the show – there’s lots of witty dialogue and puns – and it does a great job of showcasing Austria’s beautiful landscapes. 

Watch it on ORF 1.

Ein echter Wiener geht nicht unter (A true Viennese person never gives up)
If you want to get yourself accustomed to heavy Viennese dialect, this comedy is a great cult watch. Set in a working-class estate in Vienna, it revolves around the Sackbauer family, especially the rather shouty head of the household Edmund ‘Mundl’ Sackbauer, and how they deal (or don’t) with the chaos of life at that time (it ran from 1975 – 1979), It became a must-see show, even for its detractors, and its popularity led to two movie spin-offs about the Sackbauer family.

Watch it on Daily Motion

Kommissar Rex
Austria has a serious predilection for Krimis or crime stories, so there are a lot to choose from, but we love this 90s Turner and Hooch-esque spin on the genre. Rex, a ridiculously clever German Shepherd police dog is the star of the crime-comedy, helping his partners and the Vienna murder squad to solve crimes.

The early seasons are all set in Austria, so expect lots of Austrian dialect, but filming moved to Italy in 2008.

Watch it on YouTube

Altes Geld (Old Money)
David Schalko’s 2015 dark satire revolves around a dysfunctional Viennese family with pots of money. Although the eight-episode series is set in Vienna, the lead role of the patriarch, Ralf Rauchensteiner, is played by German heavyweight Udo Kier.

He’s going to die if he doesn’t get a new liver sharpish and as he’s going to leave all his money to whoever finds him one, the race is, quite literally, on. It’s essentially “Dallas for psychos”, according to its creator.

Austrian actor Gert Voss was intended for the part of Rauchensteiner, but he died suddenly. The other leads are all Austrian, though, and, like Voss, are alumni of Vienna’s renowned Burgtheater.

Watch it on Prime

Der Pass (The Pass)
Another day, another Krimi, but here, the police are dealing with a serial killer who styles himself as a demon and is paying back society for all its evils by eliminating people. As you do. This 2019 Austrian-German Sky production was inspired by Danish-Swedish hit The Bridge although it’s a completely new story.  

It’s a dark, gripping watch and it’s a winner from a linguistic perspective, too: it teams up a sensible German police officer with a cynical Austrian one, and is a nice contrast of the differences between the German spoken in the two countries. 

Watch it on Sky

Soko Donau (Vienna Crime Squad)
Guess what, it’s another crime series! Soko stands for Sonderkommission, and the special investigation team in question here is part of Vienna’s water police. The long-running seres is a great immersion course in the dialects and cheeky charm of Vienna.

Watch it on YouTube/Prime

Tatort (Crime Scene)
This long-running wildly popular crime series (yes, another one) started out in West Germany in the 70s. Since then, it’s expanded into a cross-country production between Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with episodes moving around different locations. The Austrian episodes are well worth digging out. Chief inspector Eisner has been solving crimes around the country – Vienna, Innsbruck, Linz, the Tirol, Carinthia and Styria – since 1999 and he’s often joined by his alcohol-dependent sidekick Bibi Fellner.

Watch it on ORF or ARD

Bergdoktor (Mountain Medic)
Moving away from crime, this light-hearted medical drama is filmed in the village of Elmau in the gorgeous Wilder Kaiser region. It centres on the professional and personal trials and tribulations of Dr Martin Gruber who gives up a surgical post in New York to take over a GP practice in the Tyrolean mountains.

The gentle, family-friendly show (think a schmaltzier Doc Martin – the TV soundtrack is Take That’s ‘Patience’, after all) might not win any Oscars any time soon, but it’s a nice easy watch and a great way to explore Austria’s Alpine villages without leaving the sofa – the locations are spectacular.

Plus, despite being set in the mountains, the roles are played by a mix of German and Austrian actors, so whilst it may be less authentic, it’s also less dialect-heavy than some other Austrian TV options. 

Watch it on ZDF

For more Austrian TV inspiration, have a look at this list of TV shows to watch to learn about Austrian culture.

Have we missed any of your favourites? Let us know in the comments!